- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

The blockbuster trade rumor that at first seemed too wild even for talk radio has developed legs.

Knowledgeable sources within the NHL now say a possible Jaromir Jagr-for-Eric Lindros deal is at least in the discussion stages.

According to league sources, the Washington Capitals would send Jagr to the New York Rangers, picking up about half of his $11million salary for next season only. New York would ship Lindros to the Caps, with Washington assuming the financial and possible medical burdens involved with the center.

The deal is no more illogical than the thought two summers ago that Jagr would be a Cap. What is remarkable now is that then, the Caps went after Jagr only after they were turned down by Pierre Turgeon, who ended up in Dallas, and the Rangers went after Lindros after they were rejected by Jagr.

Each of the stars joined his current team in 2001 after years with their initial clubs. The Caps acquired Jagr from Pittsburgh for three prospects and $4.9million in cash after the right wing had spent 11 years in Pittsburgh. The Rangers acquired the rights to Lindros from Philadelphia after the center had spent eight troubled years with the Flyers.

But the situations for the Caps and Rangers, as well as the entire NHL, have changed dramatically in the past two seasons. Neither player was the fulcrum to success on the ice that was envisioned, and neither has sparked the stampede at the box office that was hoped for. New York has missed postseason for six straight seasons; the Caps missed the playoffs in Jagr’s first season and were dumped after the first round in his second.

More importantly the NHL is in a financial mess, with two teams in bankruptcy, several others in serious financial trouble, league TV viewership tanking at an alarming rate, turnstile counts down and the distinct probability of a work stoppage of more than one full season coming after next season, with a salary cap the primary issue.

Efforts to reach Ted Leonsis, the Caps’ majority owner, were unsuccessful yesterday. George McPhee, the Washington general manager, also could not be reached, and efforts to reach a member of the Rangers’ upper management team were not successful.

A league source said last night he wasn’t sure Leonsis wanted to go in the direction of moving one highly paid superstar while acquiring another who would arrive with different baggage.

Leonsis said immediately after the Caps were beaten in the playoffs that he would be reviewing the team’s finances after it failed to come close to selling out MCI Center for any of the three home playoff dates. He said the fans had spoken and he had heard them.

Washington finished the season with a payroll of just more than $50million, $6million less than the previous season but still sixth in the NHL. The Rangers were the runaway league leaders with a payroll of more than $80million, exceeding the league record by at least $12million.

Jagr has not been the on-ice leader and point-producing dynamo the Caps envisioned when they obtained him. He has 67 goals and 156 points in 144 games but has not challenged for the league scoring championship during his Washington tenure. He had won it each of his last four seasons in Pittsburgh.

If Leonsis is serious about cutting payroll in view of fan turnout for the playoffs or because of the impending labor dispute, Jagr is a good place to start. He arrived from the Penguins with two years remaining on a contract that could pay him about $20.5million. An extension of five years was negotiated, calling for the right wing to receive $11million for each of those seven seasons and an option for an eighth with a $1million parting award if the option was not picked up. The Caps now are on the hook for at least $56million.

Lindros is in the final year of a contract calling for him to make a base salary of $3.3million, a paltry sum by today’s standards. But if he is “available” for each of the 82 regular-season games, a bonus of $6million kicks in, making his potential salary $9.3million.

The reason for the unusual bonus clause is Lindros’ medical past. He has a lengthy history of very serious concussions and had been advised to give up the sport, just as his younger brother, Brett, did when he retired from the New York Islanders. Lindros sat out the entire 2000-01 season after an ugly contract dispute with the Flyers.

The season-long hiatus came after the center sustained at least a half dozen concussions during the previous season, the final one during the Eastern Conference playoff finals when New Jersey’s Scott Stevens leveled Lindros as he skated at center ice with the puck, his head down so he couldn’t see what was coming.

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